In the last couple of teachings in our Exodus sermon series, I’ve made passing reference to some historical problems in the text, or at least, some issues that are commonly construed as historical problems by the overwhelming majority of the scholarly community. (It’s a mouthful, but I think that’s fair to say.)
I’ve been taught (and I know intuitively) that a mini-lecture on the necessity of a historical-critical reading of the Bible isn’t typically the makings of a life-changing sermon. To be fair, I often wonder what constitutes such a sermon. I mean, I preach a lot, and I like to think that I remain a student of good preaching. I listen to podcasts. I try to read articles and books on the discipline (sometimes). I talk to other pastors and compare approaches. I love the artistry and intentionality in delivery that goes into a memorable teaching. But even with all of that, I can probably remember 5 or so “great” sermons that I’ve heard over the course of my lifetime (and to the chagrin of some of my friends, most of those are by Rob Bell!).
The odds that I will fire up something truly memorable for you each week are not in my favor.
Nevertheless, I try.
But if something comes up in our text for the week that has stumped scholars, I like to make mention of it, even though the commonly accepted list of “best practices for preaching” might urge me not to. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s important that we know our sacred text well, which means, sometimes we have to confront some of its difficulties head on. And second, I think it’s important to show your interpretive cards for folks in the room that already have questions about the legitimacy of the Bible. To ignore a troublesome historical or textual issue could serve to further their distrust of preaching…of the Church…of organized religion…maybe even of Jesus. In my sermons, I try to model not only awareness of the difficult issue that is presenting itself, but also a sense of confidence in the Bible regardless of its presence (even if I am understanding the nature and character of the Bible a bit differently than some).
Sometimes I wonder if I overemphasize this “honest” approach or romanticize its effectiveness. Maybe I should listen to the experts and focus more on application.
Thankfully, this is a blog post, not a sermon. I think that grants us some freedom to explore stuff that might best be left on the cutting room floor of sermon prep (that usually isn’t). So brace yourselves, people. You’re in for a short discourse on one of the historical problems in the story of the Israel’s departure out of Egypt: the number of participants in the exodus event.
Here’s the recap.
After Israel is (finally) sent away by Pharaoh, which occurs only after the dramatic account of the death of all of the Egyptian firstborn children and animals, it says, “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” (Exodus 12:37).
When everyone is accounted for, scholars estimate that the total number of people would have been around 2-3 million.
I’m not sure how this figure is initially digested by a modern readership, but when it is placed in its ancient context, it is massive.
Carol Meyers describes the total as an “astronomical and impossible number,” “likely hyperbole” (Meyers, Exodus). John Goldingay provides a more tangible frame of reference for the size of this migrant community, explaining, “Six hundred thousand men implies a company of two or three million with the women and children, which would mean the Israelites were as numerous as the Egyptians and far more numerous than the population of Canaan, or than the Israelites themselves ever were when they lived in Canaan through Old Testament times, or than the peoples in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century” (Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus).
In other words, that many Israelites leaving Egypt at this point in their history defies logic (and the evidence). The story imagines that a group bigger than Israel was for most of its history was assembled in Egypt and functioned as a (relatively powerless) slave community…? It’s difficult on a historical level.
And then there’s this hypothesis from the moderate historians of ancient Israel and Judah, J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, “Exodus 12:37-39 reports that 600,000 Israelites of fighting age left Egypt. This number plus their wives and children along with the mixed multitude said to accompany them would have totaled some two and a half million. Marching ten abreast, the numbers would have formed a line over 150 miles long and would have required eight or nine days to march by any fixed point” (Miller and Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah).
If you’ve seen The Ten Commandments, this time consuming journey is not the image you probably conjure in your mind of the Red Sea crossing.
Beyond the potential hyperbole of the text and the logistical issues that come along with Miller/Hayes’ imaginative reconstruction of an ancient people marching “ten abreast” across a body of water for days, the real problem, the real reason this text is so problematic is that the archaeological record does not provide any data to suggest that 2-3 million Israelites left Egypt and marched through the wilderness for a generation on their way to the Promised Land.
So where does that leave us?
As you might expect, people have come up with some explanations, but not many of them try too hard to defend the historical veracity of over a couple million Israelites leaving Egypt.
Noted Jewish scholar, Nahum Sarna, proposed that the numerical detail in Exodus does not reflect the number of people who were leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, but the number of the Israelite people alive during the time of the United Monarchy (which began a few centuries down the line, around the time of David). Admittedly, there have been many hands involved in the production of the Bible that we now have. And there is good evidence of “later edits” to a number of texts, which were added by many people in many different contexts. It is conceivable, therefore, that someone writing/editing at a later stage in Israel’s history retrojected a figure closer to the current size of the Israelite people during their time back onto one of Israel’s most important texts.
It’s conjecture, of course, but it at least makes some sense of the numbers.
Others suggest that the term usually rendered “thousand” in Hebrew (eleph) can also mean “family, clan.” As a result (and I would imagine this is largely due to the difficulty of substantiating such an outlandish number of people in Exodus 12), these scholars argue that “600 thousand” actually means “600 families.”
Even one of the most conservative histories of biblical Israel recognizes the problem. To address it, the authors postulate that there are often other purposes for numbers in the Bible than “to communicate literal fact” (Provan, Long, and Longman, A Biblical History of Israel). Symbolism, maybe. I’m not sure how content the authors of this volume would be with hyperbole as a proposed solution.
When the dust settles, one scholar simply advises us that it is best “to remain agnostic on this matter” (Enns, Exodus), at least as far as history is concerned.
In other words, he argues that when posed with the question, how many people really left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, we should answer honestly. We simply don’t know.
But when asked how many people left in the Exodus narrative…that’s an easy one…a lot. And that tells us something.
Most evangelicals, I think, would balk at an attempt to separate history and literature. They aver, we should “trust” the Bible. In fact, they usually celebrate this shared commitment as one of the marks of their in-group; anyone who deviates from it or has questions about it is condemned to the dark side.
If the Bible says 600,000, then 600,000 it is.
Archaeology and historical evidence be damned.
I’m obviously not one of those evangelicals.
I’ve been listening to a great podcast lately called, The Bible for Normal People. It’s hosted by my former doctoral supervisor (before he was forced to resign as a newly-tenured, full professor of Old Testament amidst some theological controversy, and before I and almost every other PhD student in my program at the time transferred schools in a form of protest) and a former classmate. It’s relatively new, but in one of the early episodes they talked to Walter Brueggemann. (If you’d like to listen and you do: click here.)
Brueggemann is a stud—an established leader in the field of Old Testament studies, an insightful and imaginative reader of Scripture, a champion of the Church. In this episode, he argues that evangelicals haven’t dealt with historical-critical issues enough (or at all, in some cases), and it’s impacted what they do with the Bible. (He also says that the mainline denominations have spent too much time with historical-criticism, which has also impacted what they do with the Bible, but that isn’t our problem here, so I’ll leave it alone for now.)
I tend to agree with him.
In my experience, when evangelicals are confronted with “astronomical and impossible” numbers, they are likely to bury their head in the sand. Or maybe they appeal to the well-known mantra explaining the basis of their interpretive approach: the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Or maybe they move immediately to a defense of the Bible.
None of those approaches are especially helpful.
Personally, I don’t think 2-3 million Israelites left Egypt, even though the Bible implies it. And the reason I don’t is because the evidence doesn’t support it.
I used to think it did, but after reading a few books, hearing a few great talks, listening to people that challenged me (people that loved Jesus and loved me, both of which were important factors in my journey), I changed my mind. *Side note: Changing your mind is not always a sign of weakness, and it’s not always a slippery slope.
Thankfully (and maybe surprisingly to some), this new interpretive commitment hasn’t emptied Exodus of its power for me. Neither has it made me value the Bible less. In fact, I actually think this respect for context has made the Bible come to life for me in a way that it wasn’t before.
Brueggemann argues that evangelicals have often minimized the theological import of the Bible, perhaps because they have spent the majority of their time defending it. I know I have felt this pressure in the past, especially when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable logical/textual/interpretive/archaeological/theological problem that, if conceded, would impact some of my longstanding beliefs about a certain passage or story or about the Bible as a whole.
However, and I keep coming back to this in these blog posts, when we allow ourselves to read with a different interpretive goal—namely, one that is less concerned with defending the Bible and more concerned with discerning what we learn about God—we see things in a new light.
I still believe that God delivered his people out of slavery and servitude, even if it may have been a smaller number than 2-3 million.
I still believe that God brought about this deliverance through a miraculous display of power (in the Red Sea crossing), even if we can’t say with certainty where it took place or what it looked like in history.
Regardless of our uncertainty of the story’s historical accuracy in all its details, I still believe that this story communicates important truths about the nature of God’s character.
For ancient Israel, the exodus event was the paradigm for God’s redemptive activity. They looked back to it again and again, and they expected God to act in similar ways throughout their history. It wasn’t just something that happened “back then.” It continued to happen.
This makes Sarna’s proposal a bit more attractive. Remember, he thought that the 2-3 million people in Exodus reflected something closer to the number of people at a later stage in their history. Read in this way, whoever was a part of “Israel” later on, believed that they experienced the exodus too (in some way) in the past. To import their full number back into this foundational story was a theological move.
They were there.
God delivered them along with their ancestors.
And God would/could/will do it again.
The number in Exodus 12 isn’t just a historical detail. It is a figure infused with theological potency. And that’s exactly what the Bible does.
It communicates theological truths about who God is.
I think we often turn it into something else—something weaker—when we make it function merely as a repository of historical facts. We miss out on the theological instruction of these ancient stories.
In Exodus, it’s the fact that God delivers.
All of us.
Sometimes in magnanimous ways.
And God will deliver us all again.
Call me crazy, but I think that’ll preach.
Dr. Josh James is one of the pastors of The Restoration Project. He thinks about stuff like this a lot. Not everyone agrees with him. Whether or not you do, he’d love to drink coffee with you and talk about it.